Art and architecture consist the expression of society’s ethos and moral character; they function as its mirrors. Especially during times of crisis, change or instability, they reflect the state of its values. When we look back in Rome in 27 BCE, the time when Augustus Caesar founded the Roman Principate and became its first emperor, art served as one of his media to first claim, then establish and finally stabilize his domination. As Paul Zanker comments “rarely has art been pressed into the service of political power so directly as in the Age of Augustus”1.
Augustus was a political genius who accomplished to establish peace (Pax Romana which is sometimes called Pax Augusta to honour his name) and stabilize his position as the Roman emperor between his rivals with great ingenuity. In order to understand the statement above, we need to discuss briefly the political and social environment in which Augustus emerged.
Figure 1. The “Death of Julius Caesar”, as depicted by Vincenzo Camuccini.
The death of Julius Caesar (44 BCE), was followed by a period of violence and great discontent which lasted approximately thirteen years. Octavian, the adopted son and heir of Caesar (afterwards granted the honourable title of Augustus), found himself in the early age of eighteen, in the position of taking over the difficult task to restore the Republic2. But he wasn’t the only one who desired the leadership of Rome. This is the reason why he needed to declare his right as the successor of his father. The words of Octavian in his speech to the Senate, after the death of Julius, revealed his intention. Cicero, who transmitted us his speech, wrote that Augustus did an emotional-charged gesture with his hand and pointing to a statue of Julius said, “may I succeed in attaining the honours and position of my father to which I am entitled”3. This early incident that Cicero conveyed to us, characterized by the few words and the single gesture of his hand, symbolized his early mastery of propaganda in this political context and indicated that every part of his propaganda was well thought and deliberate.
The means with which Augustus achieved his goal were various but consisted. Among them, he created a new complex method of visual communication with his audience which helped him towards the establishment of his monarchy and the transformation of the Roman society. Most importantly, through this visual imagery not only a new mythology of Rome and its emperor started, but also a new ritual of power was created4.
Marshall McLuhan argued in 1964 in his book called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, that “the medium is the message”5, opening new horizons in the study of communication theory, that focused until then only in the characteristics of the sender and the transmitter and not in the media of their communication. McLuhan supported an idea that has been used by Augustus two millennia earlier in his propaganda. He claimed that the impression a sender wishes to create among his receivers is dependent of and affected by the means in which he chose to do so6; as for example the coins in the case of Augustus.
The skillful way in which Augustus influenced the Senate, the powerful individuals and citizens of the Roman Republic was correlated to the methods he or his supporters used. His actions led him to rise to power with the full support of both the Senate and the people. His name was connected with the golden age of Rome, not only for his unforgettable work but also for the establishment of the Pax Romana.
From the late 1960s onwards, a great number of studies tried to investigate and argue on Augustan art as a political propaganda. The scholars’ attempt was to uncover the evidence for the workings of a secret propaganda machine by Augustus. In this direction, the current essay will attempt to explore the relation between image, authority and propaganda of values in the Roman imperial coinage. In other words, it will investigate how specific coin examples dating from the age of Augustus, illustrate the nature/values of his regime. The interest of the essay is found on the following questions: what kinds of images were depicted on the coins of Augustus and which was their purpose.
Augustus Caesar and propaganda
“In any large empire, embracing many languages, nations and cultures, the ruler must somehow persuade his subjects (i) that he is fit to rule them, and (ii) that they are being ruled for their own good. He must, in fact, use propaganda”7
The use of propaganda throughout time, especially when it comes to politics, is a common and widely adopted means of predominance and influence of the masses. However, looking back into history, few people of power and politicians used propaganda as successfully and effectively as the first emperor of Rome, Augustus Caesar.
1 Zanker, Paul. The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Trans. Shapiro, Alan. Michigan : University of Michigan Press, 1988, preface
2 Ibid, p.101
3 Ibid, p.33
5 McLuhan, Marshall, and Lewis H Lapham. Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994, p. 32
6 McLuhan, Marshall, and Lewis H Lapham. Understanding Media : The Extensions of Man. First MIT Press Edition, 1994. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994, p.32
7 Charlesworth, M.P. The Virtues of a Roman Emperor: Propaganda and the Creation of Belief. in Stone, C. G. Proceedings of the British Academy. Volume Xxiii. London: Milford, 1937, p. 108